May 2013

The Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) today unveiled the west wall and upper hall ceiling of the celebrated Painted Hall following several months of intensive conservation work by the specialist company, Paine & Stewart.

A grant of £335,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), together with other funds raised by the leading heritage attraction, enabled this first phase of the conservation work to be undertaken, and the results are inspiring.

“It is over 50 years since any work was done on this paintings in this remarkable hall,” says Brendan McCarthy, CEO of the Greenwich Foundation, the charity set up in 1997 to run the ORNC. “Paine & Stewart have done a wonderful job and the results are clear for everyone to see. The vibrancy of Sir James Thornhill’s artwork has been restored and the fine detail of the paintings once more revealed.”

Throughout the conservation the ORNC has led a programme of associated activities which have enabled people to learn more about the history and iconography of the paintings and of the conservation process. These included two internships - one in wall painting conservation and one in environmental monitoring; placements for University of Greenwich students documenting the project on film; hands-on heritage skills taster workshops for more than 100 local secondary school children; and popular scaffolding tours through which visitors saw the specialist conservators at work and were able to see some of the paintings close up for the first time in a generation.

“Engaging people with the conservation work was one of the major commitments of the ORNC,” adds Brendan McCarthy. “Over 1,000 visitors enjoyed a scaffolding tour and later this month a special exhibition inspired by the west wall, which has been created by some of the community groups with whom we have worked, will open in the Nelson Room.”

Wesley Kerr, Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund Committee for London, officially unveiled the conserved west wall and upper ceiling paintings at a launch event attended by the many groups and individuals who have been involved in the project. He said:

“The Painted Hall is London’s Sistine Chapel – it is one of the most magnificent rooms in Europe and Thornhill’s work is one of the finest paintings in Britain. We are delighted that this first phase of restoration works is now complete, revealing a masterly exposition of historic, royal, naval and London motifs. Over a thousand people climbed the scaffold to see the restoration in progress, and we look forward to tens of thousands more visiting Greenwich to view this magnificent attraction in the future.”

Specialist conservators at work © Damian Gillie Photography
Specialist conservators at work © Damian Gillie Photography

A large-scale restoration project undertaken by the Ministry of Works in the 1950s proved highly successful in removing numerous previous varnishes which had darkened the paintings considerably. However, in the intervening period the appearance of all the surfaces had once again become dull and muted due to heavy deposits of accumulated dirt and dust. Paine & Stewart gently removed these dirt layers, to reveal the full splendour of the original paintings.

"It has been a long held professional ambition of both myself and my colleague Sophie Stewart to have the opportunity of working on what are by far the most important, and largest, scheme of Baroque wall paintings in the country,” says Stephen Paine. “To also have had the opportunity facilitated by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Greenwich Foundation, to demonstrate the science of modern conservation to over 1000 member of the general public, who have over the course of the project have had access to our scaffolding has been very special. It has been both an enriching experience for all of our visitors, as well as our team who have had the opportunity to outline what we have been undertaking for the last 5 months in the upper hall to an inquiring audience. We are hoping that this initial project will now act as a stimulus towards the great challenge of undertaking the conservation of the remaining 2000 sq metres of further magnificent painting in the lower hall."

Conservation of the entire Painted Hall is expected to cost in excess of £2.5m and take several years.

An exhibition inspired by the west wall conservation and created by community groups in Greenwich will go on display in the Nelson Room (to the side of the Painted Hall) on 31 May 2013.

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